Heidelberg, Thanksgiving, Sinterklaas

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Monday, November 24, 2003

Hi everybody!

It is clearly getting toward winter here now - which means not much light and a lot of gray, rainy days. It's not yet the shortest day of the year, yet the sun is coming up sometime after 8:00 and dusk arrives around 4:30. There's a good bit of rain and gray, but it's not particularly cold yet. In fact, we don't even have all of our winter coats out and Melanie is still riding her bike to work 1-2 days per week.

We've also entered the third stage of "culture shock" - a return to normalcy. This whole adventure is starting to feel more like our normal life. We've established some familiar routines - favorite restaurants, favorite stores, routine dinner ideas, and the like. Thus, there will probably be (as you may have already noticed) fewer travelpod entries unless we're actually traveling somewhere or going someplace new.

At the beginning of the month we drove to Heidelberg, Germany, and spent the weekend with Bruce's uncle and his family. (Bruce is Chris' friend, He worked in LA at the same company Chris did in the US....remember him from the Halloween entry?). Heidelberg is a really cute little town. There are lots of shops in the old town area, which is mostly pedestrian only. There are great bakeries where we bought coffee cake, poppeyseed Danish, and other goodies. We toured the Heidelberg castle, saw the university (one of Europe's oldest, founded in 1386) and enjoyed the crisp autumn day.

From the castle, there was a spectacular view of Heidelberg below. When Mark Twain visited Heidelberg in 1878 he looked down at this same scene and remarked: "I have never enjoyed a view which had such a serene and satisfying charm about it as this one gives." Nothing has changed.

Bruce's uncle's family was great too. They're from Iran, so we ate a lot of Persian food (Bruce's aunt is a GREAT cook!), and enjoyed experiencing another culture. They were very warm and friendly people. Despite the fact that their apartment was under renovation, causing there to be only one bathroom, they still opened their home to a friend who was visiting from Tehran, Bruce, and the two of us. In total there were seven people in a small 2-bedroom apartment sharing 1 bathroom, but they were so friendly that it felt very cozy, not cramped. On Saturday night, they treated us to their favorite Persian restaurant where we tried a yogurt milk drink that put us into a wonderful deep sleep for the evening.

Heidelberg is a six hour drive from Amsterdam, which is pretty long for a weekend, but the leaves had turned beautiful colors and Germany has nice rolling hills (unlike the flat Netherlands), so it was a very nice, beautiful drive. It is easy to see why so many Germans settle in Wisconsin and Ohio - the fall colors and hillsides in Germany were very reminiscent of those Melanie always misses from Ohio at this time of year. On the way back to Amsterdam, we stopped in Koln (Cologne) so that Bruce could see the Cathedral. While there we took a walk along the Rhine as well.

November 11 was St. Martin's night in the Netherlands. For this night the children make paper lanterns in which they put candles. They then light the candles and walk from house to house, sing songs, and receive candy. The neighbor children came over and sang and we gave them Halloween candy. They don't dress up, like we do for Halloween, they just make the lanterns and sing. Apparently they (especially the younger children) must practice singing the songs for some time before the actual night - to have them memorized and ready in order to receive the candy.

On Sunday, November 16, Sinterklaas arrived in Amsterdam. He always comes in mid-November, two weeks before his birthday on December 6, on a boat from Spain. After getting to the Netherlands, he rides his white horse throughout the country, accompanied by his helpers, the Zwarte Pieten (the Black Petes). There is a parade from Central Station to Dam Square and then on to the Leidseplein. Along the route, the Zwarte Pieten hand out small ginger cookies, called peppernusse, to members of the crowd.

The Zwarte Pieten are very politically incorrect by U.S. standards. They are mostly white men in very dark black face with big red lips. They wear colorful and jovial costumes with gold earrings and hats with feathers. The children like Zwarte Piet because he assists Sinterklaas by performing various holiday tasks, like delivering presents down chimneys and recording names of naughty and nice children in Sinterklaas' book of names. Over the next two weeks Sinterklaas will ride across rooftops at night on his white horse, listening through chimneys for good children. Nice children leave carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas' horse and wake up to shoes full of candy and treats. On the eve before his birthday Sinterklaas delivers presents to good children. The bad children are whipped and kidnapped back to Spain to be used as slaves. Pretty good incentive to be good!

There are also other family activities that occur on December 5, Sintaklaas eve. Family members write funny poems about each other and hide presents inside packages that are tricky or difficult to get to. For instance, maybe the present will be buried in the backyard, or in a jello salad, or something of that nature. It is also traditional to give the first letter of the person's name in chocolate.

Also last Sunday, our friends Stephan and Julie hosted a pre-Thanksgiving potluck dinner. They made the turkey, Melanie made the stuffing, and other people brought traditional Thanksgiving fare such as sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. It was a lot of fun with not only other Americans, but people from Australia, UK, France, Greece, Korea and Columbia. There were Korean dumplings, stuffed grape leaves and Greek feta cheese goodies. It was a lot of fun and now we won't feel quite so deprived when Melanie goes to work next Thursday and dinner is nothing special.


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